No…we’re not talking about America’s merriest, happy warrior-in-chief.
Toni Morrison named Bill Clinton America’s first “black” president in the same sense that Barack Obama is being heralded by Newsweek (are they merely trying to compete with Time’s cover?) as America’s first “gay” president. But who was America’s first actual gay president? It certainly wasn’t Abraham Lincoln.
Well, here’s the straight “news”:
Tina Brown would like you to think that our 44th commander in chief is the “First Gay President.” Jim Loewen would like you to know that title actually belongs to our country’s 15th leader, James Buchanan. After taking a moment to smack Newsweek for the “cheap sensationalism” of its buzzy cover, Loewen imparts a history lesson. “Buchanan was gay, before, during and after his four years in the White House,” he writes for Salon. And the country was well aware of it.
Loewen on the subject of “chronological ethnocentrism”:
Loewen’s intention isn’t just to give you a new trivia tidbit: It’s to explain why Buchanan isn’t lauded as such, and what that means. Quite simply, our “touching belief in progress” is the problem. “We must be more tolerant now than we were way back in the middle of the 19th century! Buchanan could not have been gay then, else we would not seem more tolerant now.” Loewen urges us to embrace a more complex national history, one in which “we all moved backward” for about 50 years beginning in 1890, particularly in terms of race relations. “If we can rid ourselves of the fantasy that we are always getting better, then maybe we can create a nation that actually becomes more tolerant,” he writes. “Then we might—again—elect a real gay president.” Click for his entire column.
President Obama’s change of heart about gay marriage remains significant. It does show increasing tolerance compared to our recent past. During the nadir of race relations, that terrible period between 1890 and about 1940 when white America went more racist in its thinking than at any other time, the U.S. also clamped down on beards, liquor (briefly) and, yes, homosexuals. As Jackie Robinson was not the first black player in Major League Baseball, but rather the first after the nadir, so President Obama is not our “first gay” president (Forgive me: I cannot seem to retype Newsweek’s silly headline without putting quotation marks around the words), but only our “first” since the nadir.
Remembering that James Buchanan was homosexual complexifies our national narrative, to be sure, but it is a complexity that we need.
Obama has twice been called the first woman president: first in 2008, by Newsweek’s Martin Linsky, and then again by The Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker in 2010. The argument in both cases was that Obama’s wisdom, values, and management style were similar to that of a female leader. In 2009 the Associated Foreign Press asked if Obama was the first Asian-American president while, the same year, Geraldo Rivera suggested he might be the first Hispanic president. Then, in 2011, New York magazine declared him the first Jewish president. “Expectations were high that editor Tina Brown would do something typically attention-grabbing to mark this occasion, but this effort seems, well, cliché,” Randall writes. “It wasn’t going to be long before someone outed our first black, female, Jewish, Hispanic, Asian-American president as gay.”
That’s just so….”gay”.
When will the sexual, ethnic, and religious identity of our president cease to matter?
As an aside and afterthought…now I’m curious to know who was America’s merriest of presidents?